Saturday, October 7, 2017

Oi Ma: 5 Years Later

Being in Calabria with Azzurra and her family makes my heart sing, and has ever since my first visit there ten years ago.  Being so completely welcomed into another family as one of their own is such a rare and unique gift, and this family's combination of generosity, good humor, and delicious food makes it all the more special.  Returning after five years, I fit right back into the fold, and couldn't help reflecting on my many previous visits:
  1. The first time, when I went down for Christmas while studying abroad (here, here and here
  2. Silvia's First Communion
  3. Summer 2008, before moving home after studing abroad
  4. My return after two years, during which time I got the job with Georgetown
  5. Easter 2012 (in Italian and in English)
  6. And finally the most recent time, for mamma's 50th, before I moved back to the states in 2012
This time I stayed for close to a week, making my visit coincide with Azzurra's godson's baptism, meaning the whole family was home!  There's so much to tell.
Day 1: Family Reunion Dinner

Azzurra and her dad made the hour and a half journey to pick me up at Lamezia airport, and I arrived home to wonderful preparations for dinner.

Mamma made me a welcome cake!


I had seen Azzurra's brother, Giuseppe, just last November in London, so I knew about his newfound passion of cooking, but it was a whole other thing to see him in action.  Here he is describing the intricacies of meat grilling to his sisters.

Silvia, Azzurra's sister, was the most changed.  Last time I saw her she was 13, and now she's a woman, preparing to leave for college at the University of Bologna, just like Azzurra and I did.  Even after five years, these two siblings I last saw together as kids goofing off in the kitchen are so true to who I'd known them to be, with a fresh sprinkling of maturity on top.  I really appreciated spending the week getting to know them as adults. 

Apparently the new thing in southern Italy is to build a second kitchen in the garage, where it's cooler.  So here we are in mamma's new happy place, kicking off the wonderful dinner she and Giuseppe prepared for us!  I felt like my heart was going to burst in this moment, so overjoyed was I to be there and have the whole week with them (and that food) ahead of me.

After dinner, we had great fun exchanging gifts.  The siblings were particularly excited about the Converse sneakers I brought them (phew, they fit!). 

Day 2: Lungro and a Calabrian Safari

The next day was dedicated to i nonni, mamma's parents, in Lungro, about 45 minutes away.  It was the only time they were getting to see Azzurra and Giuseppe while they were home as well, so it was an extra-joyous reunion.  Of course this meant that nonna pulled out all the stops.  We got to try many different types of their homemade salsiccia, including capocollo, and I learned about how they go in on a pig each year to have raised and later split lengthwise for two families to produce their own cured meats in their own garages.  In addition, she prepared handmade manicotti, Giuseppe's favorite, and tons of specially prepared vegetables under oil or vinegar.  Honestly, the wonders just kept coming and there was absolutely not enough room on the table (or in our bellies) for it all!

 Nonna passing out bread.
It goes on the table (seriously, what's the point of a bread plate?)

They have land that's been in the family for generations, and one of their main products is figs, which they dry and sell.  They're so sweet and delicious you could cry.

Visiting Azzurra's grandparents means a lot to me because most of my grandparents died before I was old enough to really know them.  Her grandfather is such a sweet, tender man, always joking around and planting a heartfelt kiss on your forehead.  Here he is peeling me a peach, one of my favorite memories of the trip.  I get teary-eyed just thinking about it!

Next, Zio Roberto took us on an adventure in his ancient "jeep."  We went up to the mountains, the lower part of which was unfortunately charred by arsonists, and once we got up higher and in deeper, the trees grew thick and the temperature mercifully dropped. 

We stopped for coffee at an impossible little spot in the middle of nothing (how does a business like that survive?!), and ended up near a herd of cattle sounding their bells as they meandered around literally looking for greener pastures. 

Oh, hey baby!

This was one of the most serene moments of my life

We spent about an hour siesta watching the cows, having a safari photo shoot, and resting. 

Next Zio took us to the oldest patch of their family's land, and here we are by the stone wall Zio Roberto built with his own hands.

His cross to bear!

It was powerful to hear Zio talk about his work on his family's land, about the 180-year-old olive trees his great-great grandfather must have planted, about the legacy he wants to leave for future generations.  There's a strong and understandable pull to that land, with the food produced put directly on the table that brings the family together. 

Pulling us away from the sentimentality, Azzurra lamented that Giuseppe's face looked funny in all the pictures we took under the vines, to which I replied, "What can we do?  That's just his face."

Back at the house, Azzurra's uncle came by with his fixed-up 1960's cinque cento, the quintessential Italian countryside car.

And we checked out all the typical things growing in the garden, like Calabrian chilies. 

Finally, we had to get a family photo.  Look at our group, past and present:

Casa dei nonni, 2010

Same driveway and rose bush, 2017

I always sob when I have to say goodbye to i nonni and this time was no different.  I can't let another five years go by without a visit!

That night, we met up with friends for dinner out at a unique restaurant that uses typical ingredients to make atypical dishes.  I hadn't seen most of these guys in five years either, and we enjoyed catching up and chowing down.  The big milestone of the evening was when the intrusive man dining alone at the table next to us jumped into our conversation.  I was talking about Shawn and his trips to Cuba, and commented how I'd love to go but things are a bit uncertain politically for Americans at this time, at which point he interrupted rather violently, defending the beauty of Cuba, snubbing America's involvement in Cuba, and not letting up.  I tried to be a respectful Italian and was very polite and deferential, agreeing with him about the beauty of Cuba and changing the subject.  Afterwards, the group praised my "grace and elegance" in handling the situation.  It's funny, because reflecting on it, I think I handled it so much more calmly as Italian-speaking Kelly than would have English-speaking Kelly.  I'm just glad I didn't embarrass us all!

Day 3: Praia A Mare and Ladies Night Out

The next day, Azzurra, Giuseppe, and I jumped in the car and headed to beautiful Praia A Mare for a day at the beach.  We spent a lot of time in cars the week I was in Calabria, but the journey was always fun-listening to tunes, having deep conversations, commenting on the ridiculousness of Calabrian infrastructure (roads are everywhere!  They build them just to make money!  One rest stop was two winding miles of brand-new road off the highway!  Absurd).  It was a miracle we got there at all, with Azzurra's backwards directions!  She would literally say left when she meant right at least half the time, and we always had a good laugh over it.

At the beach, we found out that there was no internet, meaning no one could accept credit cards.  Pooling our cash and change (down to the last dime), we only had about 60 euro, which we didn't think was going to quite fund our plans for a seafood lunch, beach chairs, birre sulla spiaggia, and paddle boat for three. 

Frutta di Mare

We forged ahead anyway, with Azzurra shamelessly pulling all her Calabrian charms and tricks to get discounts: on food (success), on chairs (success), she even tried on the boat (luck ran out).  We considered washing dishes or singing for our supper.  We were literally counting coins at the lunch table and deciding between umbrellas or beers with what little was left when we threw in the towel and Giuseppe and Azzurra went to find an ATM while I manned the fort.  She came back yelling "We're rich!" and not only rented us a boat, but bought us beers to bring along!  We were really living in the lap of luxury. 

The color of the water was gorgeous- ranging from cerulean to sparkling turquoise to deep blue, but we were disappointed to find trash in the water that people had left behind!

We cruised around the shore and explored various grottoes, taking turns paddling and pausing occasionally to jump in the water.

During one last swim, in a wide uninhabited area, as the sun was hanging low in the sky and Azzurra and I were taking in the scene, I said, "Wow, I think this is the most calm, beautiful moment of the day," when suddenly Azzurra started screaming because she saw an absolutely gigantic, brown spotted jellyfish nearby.  It should be said that 1) "jellyfish" sounds super cute in English, but the Italian "medusa" is absolutely menacing, and 2) it was seriously huge.  Like a madwoman, she made her way to the tiny ladder in the back of the boat, but was laughing so hard that she couldn't manage to lift herself.  Meanwhile, I was yelling at her because she was blocking my entrance, which just made her laugh harder!  The whole things was quite a spettacolo.  Don't worry though, we made it out safely!

That felt like our queue to turn in the boat and head back home, and we got to ride out of town with this gorgeous sunset.

That night was ladies' night out!  Mamma, Azzurra, Silvia, and I headed to Morano for dinner.  As it turned out, the long table next to us was celebrating a bachelor party, so when we toasted "To women!" they were offended and pleaded, "What about us?!"  The groom-to-be was wearing one of those t-shirts with lady parts on it, and even had a matching mug, all of which scandalized mamma.

On our way out of the restaurant deck, the drunken bunch was trying to chase down wild boar they could hear on the outskirts of the parking lot, which led to us scurrying to our car and locking the doors.  I commented on how the groom-to-be really didn't seem like much-he could no longer be called young, was overweight and a bit scruffy, just generally not who you'd consider a catch.  But I caught myself and said, "Well, to be fair, we haven't seen the bride!  Who knows who's getting the rougher end of the deal?"  Everyone laughed, but the next day we would find out...

Day 4: Baptism Prep

Friday morning we headed to San Basile, the small nearby town in the hills that Alessandro's family is from, to visit his grandmother, who had just weeks before lost her husband.  It was a sad time for everyone, as Alessandro and Vincenzo's grandfather was an extremely sweet, strong man who had raised them for much of their lives.  I had really been looking forward to seeing him again, and his loss was a huge reminder to me over the course of my visit in Calabria that we can't let too much time pass in between seeing people we love.  Here we are together nine years ago, me with my arm around nonno, probably right after eating his wife's 12-layer lasagne, to this day the most incredible one my taste buds have ever had the pleasure to meet.

The rest of the day was dedicated mostly to getting ready for the baptism.  We lounged around the house, eating pasta al pomodoro and looking at family photos from years past. 

I was fascinated at the baptism run-through, when Azzurra told me that the coordinator said they like to use the term "witnesses" instead of "godparents" due to the negative connotation of the term "padrino".  Can you imagine?!

That afternoon, Azzurra, Silvia, and I walked around town, popping into shops and getting an aperitivo.  Our last stop was at a party store hilariously called "Balloon Party," where I spotted the bachelor from the night before up at the counter with a woman, both facing away.  This was our moment to find the answer to our question!  I tapped Azzurra and Silvia on the shoulders and pointed them out.  On a secret mission, I casually walked behind the counter, pretending to take a closer look at the balloon selection.  Spotted!  Turns out he was the catch.  Buzz, your girlfriend.  Woof. 

Oddly enough, that wasn't the only surprising run-in of the day.  We were also found by the county kook, who claimed his name was Obama and insisted on taking a photo with us and giving a few too many cheek kisses.  On top of that, Cuba guy was at the table next to us again at the wine bar that night, where we accumulated quite the extended family, including Alessandro who had just flown in from Milan, and his brother, Veronica, Giuseppe's girlfriend just in from London, the parents of the baby being baptized, friends of theirs visiting from Turin, and more. 

At the wine bar

At gelato

Day 5: Civita Vecchia and Alessandro's Baptism

Giuseppe wanted to show his girlfriend around the area, so the morning of the baptism we headed to nearby Civita Vecchia to explore the town and take in the Calabria chillies drying on every house.

Soon we hurried back to enjoy a simple lunch of tomatoes and cheese at home (if you're late, everyone has to wait for you).  Have you ever seen such beautiful tomatoes?!

That evening we headed to the church for baby Alessandro's baptism.  I was eager to see everyone's outfits-check out our fancy little paisan! 

He was a trooper through the entire ceremony, until the end.  They were hard-pressed to get any photos at the church, in fact if you zoom in on the group shot below, you'll see he's not super thrilled about his recently purified soul.

Back at the house after the ceremony, I was amazed to find what looked to me like a full wedding reception: elaborately set round tables surrounding their pool, a full catering and wait staff, assigned and themed seating, an MC and DJ. 

 The parents, Alessio and Manuela

With the godparents

The MC was the most hilarious part of the evening.  He was dead-set on engaging the crowd any way possible, calling out any foreigners (I counted just as much as the Napoletano or the few from Turin), sparking karaoke, and bringing the mic around, forcing various people to make toasts. 

I just bopped in the background

And that's to say nothing about the dancing that ensued...

Human dance train around the pool

 Some kind of Italian macarena...

...that grandma was really into

and sharing some of his own incredible moves with others, mostly me.

He wouldn't leave me alone the whole night, always finding some reason to get me involved, whether it was singing, dancing, or toasting.  He really was an incredible dancer though, and when I told him this, he said, "I know."  Ha!  Despite the lack of humility, it was the best time.

Azzu and Ale

Partied too hard!

Days 6 and 7: Casa Dolce Casa

The next day, Azzurra departed, and the the rest of us ladies hung out together at home, eating, chatting, and playing Italian cards.  I learned Ti Vitti, a Sicilian card game that would prove a useful skill later on in my trip.  Ti Vitti is all about catching others playing wrong (which I often was, as a newbie!), and after awhile you get a little afraid to play, fearing someone will call you out with "ti vitti!"

That night I went for an after dinner passeggiata with mamma around town, and we would take breaks at various benches, watching the townsfolk walk by and talking about all the changes in the family, and the things to come.  We ran into lots of family and friends, and Silvia met up with us for gelato.

At one point, while mamma was talking to me about lunch the next day (the most important thing to discuss at any point for a southern Italian), Silvia interrupted to ask an important logistical question before she went off with friends.  Mamma paused, faced her and blinked, then turned directly back to me to continue our conversation.  Silvia and I busted out laughing.  Mamma was so engrossed in talking about the food, that she didn't even process what Silvia said or respond.  When we explained what had happened, she joined us in enjoying the joke.  They are all so good-natured and able to laugh at themselves!  It's one of the qualities I value most about the family.

The next morning, Silvia was off to Bologna, and I was leaving right after lunch, so it was a morning dedicated to preparations.  Silvia had been feeling ill the previous couple days, and I attributed it all to nerves about forging out on her own for the first time!

Ever the joker of the family, Giu pretended to be an English waiter at lunch, speaking very elaborate, deferential English to me as he prepared coffee and amaros.  He proved he was still very much Italian, when he told me that his going upstairs to get the Amaro delo Capo would cost me extra in labor!

Another of my favorite Giuseppe moments was when I pointed out his father lazily snoring on the couch after lunch and told him, "You know, that's going to be you one day."  Taking his time, he looked up at me and protested, "Nooo...I'm going to be much worse."  I almost died.  He kept me and the whole family in stitches the whole week.

This ricotta tower was in the top three things I ate on the entire trip.

And mamma pulled origano for me that she had dried from her own garden.

I think what I enjoyed most about this trip was realizing how easily I can morph back into that lifestyle, that version of myself.  I loved injecting myself in their daily rhythms as well as observing them, commenting on things about their language and culture that are so second-nature, they don't even notice.  For example, I brought up their hilarious salutations at the end of a call.  They say goodbye at least five times, often like, "Ciao ciao, un abbraccio, ciao, buona notte, ciao ciao cara, ciao."  When mamma heard this it was like this light bulb went off because she had never noticed how extraordinary that could be perceived.  For the whole week she would laugh at herself every time she said goodbye to someone on the phone, catching herself reenacting my observation.

I also loved observing and soon readopting the typical flow on conversation, and particularly noticing the regular re-occurrence of specific conversation topics.  Here are the principal things I discussed while in Calabria:
  • Food (what, when, how much, with whom, the preparation method, at what point you're at in the meal-"siamo arrivati alla frutta"): the principal conversation topic is always food.  In a phone conversation, right after, "How are you?" the next question almost surely is about the most recent or upcoming meal, to make sure they're eating properly while distant from you.  Or, we're discussing what we should eat, how someone's grandma's recipe is different from the one being described, I could go on.  I love this topic and have come to love talking about food almost as much as the act of eating it.
  • Logistics (when you arrived in Calabria, what day you're leaving, what time your train is, who's driving you where, what route they're taking): people need to understand this completely, and perhaps offer suggestions to improve efficiency. 
  • Who's related to whom: "You know Guido.  Santo.  Son of the butcher?  Lives on Via Roma?  One of three sons.  His aunt teaches at the elementary school?  Good family."
  • Price Comparisons: They love to discuss how much something costs elsewhere compared to local places.  The preferred benchmark is usually a cup of coffee, which I saw in Calabria as low as 75 cents (if memory doesn't fail me, I might've even seen 60 cents).  Writing this, I decided to google the prices throughout the boot and was not surprised to see this carefully researched and graphed article come up on just such a topic, proving my point.  They would also ask me about flight prices from the states to Europe, or apartment costs in San Francisco (God help me).  It was a favorite topic. 

I was of course sad to go, but managed to mostly keep my shit together through this round of goodbyes, knowing that after the wonderful time I'd had, it will definitely not be another five years until I see them all again (I hope!).

And then I started my journey farther south towards Sicily...

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